Build the City: Perspectives on Commons and Culture

A new anthology of essays, Build the City: Perspectives on Commons and Culture,powerfully confirms that the “city as a commons” meme is surging. This carefully edited, beautifully designed collection of 38 essays shows the depth and range of thinking now underway.  The book was published by Krytyka Polityczna and the European Cultural Foundation in September as part of ECF’s Idea Camp convening.

The essays of Build the City celebrate the idea that ordinary people – tenants, families, artists, the precariat, migrants, community groups, activists – have a legitimate role in participating in their own city.  The metropolis is not the privileged preserve of the wealthy, industrialists, investors, and landlords. It is a place where commoners have meaningful power and access to what they need.

You can download a pdf of the book here – or you can order a hard copy here. Besides ECF and Krytyka Polityczna, the book is a collaboration with Subtopia (Sweden), Les Tetes de l’Art (France), Oberliht (Moldova), Culture2Commons (Croatia) and Platoniq (Spain), all of whom are partners in the action-research network Connected Action for the Commons.

If there is one recurring theme in this book, it is that commoners must devise the means for more open, inclusive and participatory models of democracy in cities – and that art and culture projects can help lead the way.

“Cultural initiatives that challenge the extremely individualized model of the world are worth closer attention,” writes Agnieszka Wisniewska, a Polish member of the “Connected Action for the Commons” network, “as they may help us re-esetablish social ties and our trust in others.” The real challenge, then, is how to devise effective new structures that can empower commoners in improving governance, building social connection and democratizing power.

A number of essays focus on the importance of public spaces to the functioning of democracy itself.  This is a problem in many cities, from Istanbul to Barcelona, and from Prague to Budapest, where the forces of privatization and “development” are squeezing out the life of the city.

In one essay, Vitalie Sprinceana, a Moldovan sociologist, philosopher and activist, assesses the lasting impact of a 2012 mobilization of citizens in Chisinau against a furtive plan by city government to remake a beloved Europe Square, the site of a public garden and national monuments.  The citizen effort reinvigorated the idea that public spaces must belong to the public in practice, and that politicians and bureaucracies must not dictate the fate of those spaces.

The Laboratory, therefore, tries to use art and public theater to reach people’s emotional lives as well as their rational left brains.  “In a sense, art is magic,” said John Jordan of the Laboratory. “It’s a form of magic.  We think that’s one of its powers, that actually things become true when enough people believe in them.  Art is very good at weaving the magic that we need in these moments.”

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